Trump administration opens pristine Alaska forest to logging

(Reuters) - The Trump administration on Wednesday finalized a plan to open vast portions of the nation’s largest national forest, the Tongass in Alaska, to logging.

FILE PHOTO: The Tsirku River winds through forest as seen in an aerial view near Haines, in southwestern Alaska, U.S. on October 7, 2014. REUTERS/Bob Strong

The move lifts longstanding restrictions on tree harvests in the southeastern Alaska forest and is in line with President Donald Trump’s agenda to roll back environmental regulations that he says are roadblocks to industry.

It marked a victory for Alaska state officials who petitioned for the change because they said a Clinton-era rule that banned logging, roads and mining in undeveloped forests has cost Alaskans jobs.

Environmental groups say conservation of the forest is critical to mitigating the effects of climate change because its old-growth woodlands absorb and store carbon.

“Logging the Tongass is an unconscionable leap in the wrong direction,” Center for Western Priorities Executive Director Jennifer Rokala said in a press release.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, said in a notice on Wednesday it would exempt the Tongass from the 2001 Roadless Rule.

The rule applies to 9.2 million acres, or 55 percent of the Tongass, the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world. Alaska’s capital, Juneau, is located in the Tongass.

In the notice, the USDA said the final plan would only make 186,000 more acres available for timber production and that road construction in the forest would increase to 1,043 miles over the next 100 years instead of 994 miles if no action had been taken.

“A policy change for the Tongass National Forest can be made without major adverse impacts to the recreation, tourism, and fishing industries, while providing benefits to the timber and mining industries,” the agency said.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Chris Reese